Keep these words in your heart: scripture engagement, part 2
In the last post, I wrote about why it’s important to get people reading scripture, and I talked about some of the things that we did in a parish I served to get people ready for a year-long exploration of the scriptures. In this post, I will talk about the core of our year-long program, the Christian formation programs. The final post will offer some of the other liturgical and congregational life activities of our scripture engagement year.
As I mentioned before, some of what you read here comes from my time as a parish priest serving in Rhode Island. I’m also glad to say that in my time at Forward Movement we’ve produced some excellent resources on scripture engagement.
Sunday Christian Formation with the Bible
In the parish I served, we decided to go all in on the Bible. We tossed out our usual Sunday morning formation programs. Instead, my brilliant colleague (the Rev’d) Melody Shobe single-handedly wrote a curriculum for all ages. Every one in the congregation, of all ages, was invited to read the same Bible story week by week. The heart of our program was based on The Story published by Zondervan, because that was the best option available at the time. Stay tuned, below, for info about a newer program now available, which I think is a better offering for Episcopalians and mainline Protestants.
The Story presents the Bible as a single narrative story divided into 31 chapters. It looks like a novel, so first-time readers of scriptures aren’t intimidated by all the markings and footnotes, etc., found in most Bibles. People who make their way through The Story will have read much of the great arc of the story of God’s love for us from Genesis to Revelation. The text uses a “Reader’s Digest approach” with the New International Version of the Bible, a popular evangelical translation. At the time I used it, there was The Story and The Story for Kids, but now there’s a whole cottage industry with many different versions. We didn’t much love the evangelical-charismatic slant, but we used it anyway.
Melody wrote curricula for children, our Rite 13 class, and our J2A class. They mostly focused on telling the stories each week, beginning each class with a refresher of last week’s story. The way the story was told depended on the age, and we varied it each week. Sometimes people acted out the story. Sometimes they drew pictures or made crafts related to the story — though no matter what, we got the kids to hear and to tell the stories out loud. I remember the week we were studying Joshua and our Rite 13 class ran around the church seven times screaming. I’m just glad they didn’t have a ram’s horn to sound, or who knows what would have happened.
We found simple icons of each week (a bit like Chrismons: an ark for Noah, a ladder for Jacob, a tomb for Christ’s Resurrection, and so on). Each week, the class would color one and place it on the wall. So over the course of the year, we created timelines of the stories. We could review the whole sweep of scripture by telling the stories that went with each picture. Story telling and repetition are extraordinary. We learned the stories.
We made table-tents for families to take home so they could talk about the Bible stories each week. Remember the kids and grown-ups were all reading the same stories. The table-tent invited things such as: re-tell the story in your own words; if you made a movie of this story, who would play each part; let’s imagine what it would be like to be each of the main characters in the story; and a few others. The idea was to make it easy for folks to talk about stories of scripture.
It worked. I remember one week, two parents walked up to me before church. Their son, who was maybe six, had a question, they said. They had decided it was a question for the priest. Their son wanted to know about the crossing of the Red Sea. God had freed the Israelites from Pharaoh, but in doing so, God had killed all of Pharaoh’s army. Weren’t those men the daddies of children? Weren’t they the sons of moms and dads? What an amazing conversation for a priest to get to have with a family.
In the adult class, we mostly focused on the stories, telling and re-telling the stories similarly to how we did for kids. But a few times, we branched out to larger themes. The week we talked about Joshua, we talked about violence in the Bible and how it squares with our idea of a loving God. For the most part though, we simply wanted everyone to hear and to tell the stories.
A few weeks, we mixed things up. The very first week, to kick things off, we set up our parish hall to look like a performance hall, complete with stage lights and a set that we tried to make resemble a talk show. I interviewed some notable characters of the Bible: Eve, Moses, John the Baptist, and Mary Magdalene. The four adults who played these parts had to study their characters, and they did a great job of hamming it up. Kids and adults howled with laughter, but we also learned some things about these biblical characters and their journey as God’s people. It also got people excited to read the Bible and meet more of these characters.
The next week, Melody led folks through a wonderful, tactile telling of the creation story. Again, we had all ages come together for these two session as we began our journey together.
The Best Resource for All-Ages Year-Long Scripture Engagement
If I were doing this year-long tour of the Bible now, I’d be using some excellent resources that Forward Movement has created. [NOTE: I don’t benefit personally when we sell lots of stuff; I’d tell you the same thing even if I didn’t work there. This is good stuff.] We received a grant from the Constable Fund of the Episcopal Church to create a set of free (as in no cost!) curricula for congregations in English and Spanish. There are two be three years’ worth of classes for all ages. You can do them in any order, though I’d start with the Bible year if it were me. There’s also a year focused on the saints (which involves some church history) and a year on Episcopal beliefs & practices (coming later in 2017).
Anyway, the Exploring the Bible (children or youth/adult) offers a 25-week course for all ages: children, youth, and adults. Melody Shobe was the primary writer. As I wrote above, the methodology is to hear, to learn, and to tell the stories of scripture. It’s designed to be turn-key, so volunteer Christian formation teachers don’t have to spend loads of time preparing, though of course some prep is required.
Along with the course, there are three books. The Path: A Journey Through the Bible offers a 25 chapter exploration of the biblical narrative using NRSV text, just as most of us hear in church on Sundays. There are breakout boxes for insights and “read more” information. Each chapter also includes reflection questions suitable for individual use or book groups. The text is meant to be accessible, so people who haven’t read the Bible before won’t get overwhelmed. Indeed, at the end, they’ll have read many of the most important stories within the great narrative of God’s love. You can find a sample PDF on the Forward Movement product page.
The Path is available from Forward Movement or Amazon or your local bookseller. Of course, it’s also available for Kindle, Nook, or iTunes. It helps Forward Movement if you buy it directly, and you’ll definitely get a great price if you buy lots of copies in bulk from Forward Movement.
The second book is The Path Family Storybook. Using the same 25 chapter format, the book is written for reading age elementary school kids, with colorful pictures. There are questions to invite conversations between parents and children. Finally, there’s Pathways of Faith, an all-ages coloring book based on the same 25 themes.
Of course, I also love The Bible Challenge, a way of reading the whole bible over the course of a calendar year. It’s geared more toward individual use — or book groups for adults. Do check it out, because it may be just the thing for you. And now there are 50 Day Bible Challenges for each of the Gospels. Bible Women: All Their Words and Why They Matter is magnificent if you want hear and learn from the 93 women who speak in the Bible.
The Unabridged Bible
As I wrote above, on Sundays, we focused on the “Reader’s Digest” tour of scripture, but we also wanted to offer a path for folks who wanted to read every word of the Bible. So on Thursday evenings, we gathered for dinner and conversation. The format was loosely based on Alpha, in that we met for dinner, a lecture, and table conversation (at assigned small groups, rotated every few weeks). Since we couldn’t talk about everything, one of us clergy would usually pick a single pericope and dive in on that one story in some depth. Occasionally, we looked at broader themes. We’d give out table discussion questions, and then we clergy would love the room to do dishes so that the folks wouldn’t rely on us as experts. At the end, just before closing prayers, we clergy would return to respond to any leftover questions. The idea was that we were reading the Bible, learning some of its key stories, and building our capacity to have real conversation about matters of faith as the small groups built up trust to be vulnerable. We gave instructions to assigned table leaders about keeping conversations on track and reporting any pastoral issues that came up to us clergy for follow-up.
All of this took time, but it didn’t cost much money. We were blessed to have staff who could work on this. That’s why I was thrilled when Forward Movement received a grant to create resources to give away (for free, as in no cost) to congregations. Now if you want to do a deep dive in scripture, there’s a pretty great set of resources for you, ready to use. If you want your church to really get to know the Bible, it doesn’t need to be financially costly. It just takes a willingness to devote the time and the focus to place the Bible front and center. You’ll see transformation, guaranteed.
In the next post, I’ll talk about some of other things we did in our congregation to draw people into the scriptures.
Image: From The Path Family Storybook.